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World  

Local isn't always local

Even after winter storms left East Coast harbours thick with ice, some of the country's top chefs and trendy restaurants were offering sushi-grade tuna supposedly pulled in fresh off the coast of New York.

But it was just an illusion. No tuna was landing there. The fish had long since migrated to warmer waters.

In a global industry plagued by fraud and deceit, conscientious consumers are increasingly paying top dollar for what they believe is local, sustainably caught seafood. But even in this fast-growing niche market, companies can hide behind murky supply chains that make it difficult to determine where any given fish comes from. That's where national distributor Sea To Table stepped in, guaranteeing its products were wild and directly traceable to a U.S. dock — and sometimes the very boat that brought it in.

However, an Associated Press investigation found the company was linked to some of the same practices it vowed to fight. Preliminary DNA tests suggested some of its yellowfin tuna likely came from the other side of the world, and reporters traced the company's supply chain to migrant fishermen in foreign waters who described labour abuses, poaching and the slaughter of sharks, whales and dolphins.

The New York-based distributor was also offering species in other parts of the country that were illegal to catch, out of season and farmed.

Over the years, Sea To Table has become a darling in the sustainable seafood movement, building an impressive list of clientele, including celebrity chef Rick Bayless, Chopt Creative Salad chain, top universities and the makers of home meal kits such as HelloFresh.

"It's sad to me that this is what's going on," said Bayless, an award-winning chef who runs eight popular restaurants and hosts a PBS cooking series. He said he loved the idea of being directly tied to fishermen — and the pictures and "wonderful stories" about their catch. "This throws quite a wrench in all of that."

As part of its reporting, the AP staked out America's largest fish market, followed trucks and interviewed fishermen who worked on three continents. During a bone-chilling week, they set up a camera that shot more than 36,000 time-lapse photos of a Montauk harbour, showing no tuna boats docking. At the same time, AP worked with a chef to order fish supposedly coming from the seaside town. The boat listed on the receipt hadn't been there in at least two years.

Reporters also tracked Sea To Table's supply chain to fishermen abroad who earn as little as $1.50 a day working 22-hour shifts without proper food and water.

"We were treated like slaves," said Sulistyo, an Indonesian fisherman forced to work on a foreign trawler that delivered fish to a Sea To Table supplier. He asked that only one name be used, fearing retaliation. "They treat us like robots without any conscience."

Sea To Table owner Sean Dimin emphasized his suppliers are strictly prohibited from sending imports to customers and added violators would be terminated.

"We take this extremely seriously," he said.

Dimin said he communicated clearly with his customers that some fish labeled as freshly landed at one port was actually caught and trucked in from other states, but some chefs denied this. Federal officials described it as mislabeling.



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